May Day isn’t just an estimably American holiday, it’s a particularly Rust Belt holiday, forged in the cauldron of Chicago’s streets and factories, born from the experience of workers in the mills and plants of Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland.

By Ed Simon 

When forty-thousand workers marched down Chicago’s Michigan Avenue in 1886, their platform was the slogan “Eight hours for work, eight hours for rest, and eight hours for what you will,” coincidentally the same as the number of strikers who would be killed in the coming melee, half of them shot in Haymarket Square and the other half executed following a sham trial. A dead activist for each hour of the work day; a killed striker for each hour of nights’ sleep; a martyred worker for each hour of freedom. The Haymarket Protest, Affair, or Riot, depending on your political sympathies (historian Paul Avrich simply uses the word “tragedy”), was the culmination of decades-worth of organization from groups like the Knights of Labor and the American Federation of Labor, as well as an assortment of far more radical socialist, communist, and anarchist groups, such as the International Working Peoples Association, which in Chicago’s dew particularly from the immigrant German and Bohemian communities. The first of May, which long had resonance as a celebration of spring in many of the countries of origin for immigrant labor, had been idealistically set two years before by vote of the Federation of Organized Trade and Labor Unions as the date by which an eight-hour work day would be standardized. Protests for that May 1st , followed by a general strike, were organized throughout the northeast and the Midwest; in Chicago, the former occurred peacefully, until at the conclusion of what would be the day’s first shift, the police fired into a group of fighting workers and scabs, murdering two of the former. “Anarchism does not mean bloodshed; it does not mean robbery, arson,” said August Spies, upholsterer and editor of the radical newspaper Arbeiter-Zeitung. “These monstrosities are, on the contrary, the characteristic features of capitalism.” This was the context of the subsequent protests three days later, when labor was acutely aware of the capital’s power as aided by its loyal soldiers across the class line.

Who was responsible that May 4th for the crude incendiary device – the bomb – was a matter of debate both then and now. The police, naturally, maintained that it was thrown by someone among the contingent of anarchists, and perhaps it was. The strikers, meanwhile, fingered the possibility of an agent provocateur, a Pinkerton or scab purposefully inflaming what was waiting to catch on fire. There was talk of a mysterious “man with a briefcase” who’d arrived in Chicago from out east, who was interested in learning much about the organizers, which perhaps gives some validity to that hypothesis. Adolph Fischer, executed a year later for supposedly causing the riot, assumed that the dynamite was detonated by “some excited workingman,” and maybe that’s the most possible, some enraged, anonymous worker pushed into pyrotechnics by witnessing his fellow strikers shot dead a few days before. That the police were perfectly willing, happy even, to shoot into a crowd advocating for what to us should sound distinctly reasonable should have been cause for some excitement. Regardless of who was responsible for the explosion, the results were incontrovertible: seven dead cops and four dead workers. Four more would be added to that later tally, when fifteen men were charged, eight were convicted, of which two were commuted to life in prison, one was commuted to fifteen years, and one committed suicide in his cell, with four hooded and taken to the gallows where they were hung after singing La Marseille – Fischer, Spiess, George Engel, and Albert Parsons.

That’s the other incontrovertible truth of the Haymarket Affair, that if these are the definite deaths from that day, then these four executed men were clearly innocent. Two of those upon the gallows had been far from Haymarket that day, speaking at other rallies; Parsons and Spies were preaching on the dais in view of thousands of witnesses when the bomb was thrown; one defendant was at home, playing cards. None of these alibis stopped the police from raiding the offices of Arbeiter-Zeitung, where they arrested even the typesetters. During the subsequent trial, the defense admitted that none of the accused was literally guilty of throwing, or necessarily even building, the explosive device. So shaky were the arguments that several of the anarchists voluntarily turned themselves over for arrest, assuming that the charges would be thrown out. Yet the sentiment among the middle classes was arrayed against the workers by a press more than happy to comply with the dictates of moneyed interests. To the Chicago Tribune, the charged and the movement which they represented were “arch counselors of riot, pillage, incendiarism and murder;” for The New York Times, the anarchists were “villainous teachers,” a rebellion of “Bohemian sausage makers.” Whether or not it was Spies’ hand that measured out gunpowder or Parson’s that connected trigger wires was irrelevant to the commentariat; according to them, the explosion had already happened when the first types were set at the Arbeiter-Zeitung. That this was a free speech issue more than a question of terrorism was obvious to many, even while the editors at The New York Times and The Atlantic clambered for revenge. The Illinois miscarriage of justice was condemned by luminaries as local as attorney Clarence Darrow and as far afield as the writers George Bernard Shaw and Oscar Wilde. “The trial of the Chicago anarchists has been recognized as one of the most unjust in the annals of American jurisprudence,” Avrich wrote in The Haymarket Tragedy. Far from being guilty, the Haymarket Four were, rather, the scapegoats executed upon the desert altar of capital.

Before he was hung, Spies cried out that the “time will come when our silence will be more powerful than the voices you strangle today.” He wasn’t wrong, though their native country would hardly be the ones to recognize them, even if nearly everyone else would. Instead, that day of May 1st for which they laid down the full measure of their devotion and their sacred lives would be commemorated in Great Britain, where MP Preston Smith of the once honorably radical Labour Party declared it a “peoples’ holiday” in 1982, though that bank holiday would later be abolished by the Tories; in France, where it’s the only day that management is legally required to grant workers a holiday; in Italy, where just seven years after Haymarket the activist Andrea Costa declared “Catholics have Easter – henceforth workers will have their own Easter!” Then of course there are the scenes most often associated with May Day, of Soviet military hardware being paraded through Red Square beneath statues of grim visaged Lenin or Tiananmen Square decked out in red bunting as members of the People’s Liberation Army march in front of massive posters of Chairman Mao. It’s true that historically, from Moscow to Beijing, Havana to Ho Chi Minh City, May Day has been configured as a kind of international communist holiday, this protest in distant Chicago now taking on associations with the Eastern Bloc, the Warsaw Pact, the Cold War. Yet it’s hardly ever only been a “communist holiday,” as its origins among anarchists (themselves no fans of communism) should demonstrate. Indeed not long after the blood of Haymarket had dried and the martyrs interned at Illinois’ German Waldheim Cemetery, May Day would be recognized as a symbol of workers’ autonomy by anarchists and communists, socialists and social democrats, labor unions and even by some liberals. Today, May Day is an official holiday in recognition of labor and the working class’s contributions in some 160 nations, including all of Western Europe, though the United States is conspicuous in not doing so.

Rather than May Day, Americans have the anemic Labor Day three months later, a date that more than anything exists for barbecues and appliance sales, while officially marking when the ruling classes should stop wearing white to events far more swanky than an annual picnic. As with the metric system and soccer, the U.S. eschewal of May Day is another instance of our annoying anti-internationalism, our know-nothing, America-firster entitled sense of exceptionality, though it’s certainly an ironic one since from Berlin to Bangkok, Santiago to Seville, what’s being commemorated is a martyrdom in Chicago. Indeed it was Americans who pushed for the recognition, the establishment of May Day among left-wing groups first advocated by the American Federation of Labor when members attended the 1889 Marxist International Socialist Congress, or Second International, in Paris. The abandonment of May Day for Labor Day is, arguably, a capsule parable of the compromises and capitulations of the American labor movement, of the disavowal of the appearance of radicalism, of compromises made on behalf of criminality and corruption, of rejecting communists and anarchists but not the mafia, of genuflection before the arrayed forces and interests that they ostensibly were to stand in opposition towards. If May Day is the IWW and Eugene Debbs, Emma Goldman and Occupy Wall Street, then Labor Day is the AFL-CIO and the hard hat rioters, Samuel Gompers’ advocating for World War I and George Meany supporting Lyndon Johnson’s war in Vietnam then endorsing Richard Nixon for president. May Day is Joseph Yablonski, defeated in a corrupt election for the presidency of the United Mine Workers and later murdered alongside his wife and daughter on New Year’s Eve in ’69; Labor Day is Tony Boyle, the man who beat him in that rigged contest and ordered the assassination. All of it a tragedy, since May Day isn’t just an estimably American holiday, it’s a particularly Rust Belt holiday, forged in the cauldron of Chicago’s streets and factories, born from the experience of workers in the mills and plants of Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Cleveland. As material conditions in the Rust Belt were what made May Day, it’s ours as much as anyone else’s, Buffalo’s as much as Beijing’s, not just for Chiappas, but Chicago too.

Parsons, among the most interesting people to never have a film made about his life, was an Alabama-born former Confederate that was disgusted by slavery, became a radical Republican during Reconstruction, and later moved to Chicago where he embraced far-left politics. He told the jury at his trial that “Anarchy is the negation of force; the elimination of all authority in social affairs; it is the denial of the right of domination of one man over another. It is the diffusion of rights, of power, of duties, equally and freely among the people.” This is good and noble and needed to be said, but for the bulk of the Haymarket protesters there was scant need for Proudhon and Saint-Simon, Bakunin or Marx. They were already tutored by the best of philosophers – hunger and poverty, industrial accident and death. At Haymarket, anarchism was the theory, but the blessed desire was simply an eight hour work day. After all, this was a time when the average worker in Chicago’s tanneries and meat-packing plants, lumber yards and machine shops worked a ten, or a twelve, or a fourteen hour day, for no less than six days a week. Their demands, far from the villainy ascribed to them by the press, were simply the right to a fairly compensated day of labor that doesn’t utterly exhaust you into oblivion, that allows at least a third of your existence to be dedicated to family and love, recreation and freedom. How ironic that in our own era of neoliberalism – late capitalism – too-late capitalism – the eight hour workday is increasingly abolished in favor of a twenty-four hour work day, our lives given over to the all mighty gig and the algorithm, consumers before workers and workers before we’re people.

Bread and roses – that was the demand in the suffragette and labor activist Helen Todd’s fiery speech of 1911 and a poem by James Oppenheim published in The American Magazine that same year; the motto of Rose Schneiderman’s Woman’s Trade Union League of New York and of the Lawrence Textile Mill strikers in 1912. “The worker must have bread,” Schneiderman told a crowd in Cleveland, “but she must have roses, too.” These are the twin promises of May Day, for what the striker, the union activist, the revolutionary promises is bread, and bread is good. But the earlier promise of the first of May was for roses, and that must be remembered as well. For throughout Scotland and Ireland, it’s known as Beltane; in the Teutonic lands, the date is christened Walpurgisnacht, the Welsh call it Calan Mai, and the Slavs refer to the day as Irminden. To the ancient Romans, it was the festival of Floralia. In England, it’s May Day. Throughout Europe, from whence many of the Haymarket activists were born, the first of the month was perhaps dedicated to anointing statues of the Virgin Mary with garlands of lilies and gathering bouquets of lilacs and roses, or burning bonfires and ringing bells. The English famously erected maypoles and crowned May Queens, the day given over to the promise of spring, of rejuvenation – creation – birth. Half-way between the vernal equinox and the summer solstice, the first of May barely obscures its pagan origins, the welcoming of the spring and of new growth, of fertility and fecundity. For Medieval peasants, the occasion was among many of the feast and celebration days given over to rest and recreation, one of many figurative eight hours for what thou wilt studded throughout the liturgical calendar. At its core, whether official Church dictates claimed that it was to honor Mary or St. Walpurgis, the day was fundamentally an occasion for a kind of nature worship, for honoring the common storehouse of bounty that is our earth, to dedicate ourselves to being good stewards of this place. If labor demands bread, than the traditional May Day gives roses; if the color of the former is red, than that of the later is green. One cannot exist without the other.

Only a fool would think that socialists or communists are any more noble when it comes to extractive economics, that the centrally-planned, top-down command system innately treasures nature more than capitalism does. A visit to the scorched, caked, dried, and cracking sea-bed of the formerly verdant Aral Sea between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that was poisoned by the Soviets will disavow anyone of that. The workers who demanded security and dignity, bread and roses, were also (unbeknownst to them) engaged in the wholesale industrial degradation of the planet. The Anthropocene, our epoch of disappearing shore lines and rising temperatures, of acidified oceans and toxic rivers, of continent-spanning wildfires and super hurricanes, of drought, famine, pandemic, and war, was a product of industry. Before it was International Workers’ Day, the first of May was Beltane, Walpurgisnacht, Calan Mai, Irminden, Floralia, May Day. Before it was red, it was green. As the working class historian Peter Linebaugh put it in The Incomplete True, Authentic, and Wonderful History of May Day, “Green is the relationship to the earth and what grows therefrom. Red is a relationship to other people and the blood spilt there among. Green designates life with only necessary labor; Red refuses death by surplus labor.” Marxism is supposedly based on materialism, but there was always a deeper materialism in that archaic pagan wisdom, not just by recourse to economic abstractions, but to the wind and the rain, the earth and the air. What needs to be affirmed this May Day, and every May Day, is that environmental rights are workers’ rights; that every woman, child, and man deserves to live on a planet that isn’t being sacrificed to ungodly capital, that every person has a right to the earth, air, and water. As Todd Gitlin writes in Dissent, “You devise May Day and you celebrate it in a thousand renewals.” Now, in the twilight of the Anthropocene, this holiday offers certain lessons about solidarity and equality, liberation and freedom. What our shout now must be is nothing less than a may day for our dying planet. The response has to come from ourselves.

Ed Simon is the editor of Belt Magazine.